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  • 1 University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK


Sophocles was both a great dramatist and a significant figure in Athenian public life. As a public figure, he was elected to important offices by the Athenian demos, but he also had a hand in the abolition of democracy in 411 bc – and then won first prize in the first tragic contest held after democracy was restored. As a dramatist, he frequently gives the impression that the common people are helpless without strong and wise leadership; but he can also suggest that a leader is worth nothing if he neglects his people or ignores their opinions, and in Antigone he seems to go out of his way to highlight the importance of the opinion of the ordinary man as well as that of the elite.


Sophocles was both a great dramatist and a significant figure in Athenian public life. As a public figure, he was elected to important offices by the Athenian demos, but he also had a hand in the abolition of democracy in 411 bc – and then won first prize in the first tragic contest held after democracy was restored. As a dramatist, he frequently gives the impression that the common people are helpless without strong and wise leadership; but he can also suggest that a leader is worth nothing if he neglects his people or ignores their opinions, and in Antigone he seems to go out of his way to highlight the importance of the opinion of the ordinary man as well as that of the elite.

Sophocles was both a great dramatist and a significant figure in Athenian public life. As a public figure, he was elected to several important offices by the Athenian demos. In 443/2 bc he was chosen1 as one of the hellenotamiai (the board responsible for the funds of the Athenian alliance) and the board then probably elected him as its chairman, since his name appears on a tribute inscription (ig i3 269.36 = Sophocles T 18 TrGF) as if he were the sole hellenotamias. A year or two later he was elected as one of the ten generals and took part in the expedition against the rebellious island of Samos (Androtion FGrH 324 F 38; Strabo 14.1.18; Ion of Chios FGrH 392 F 6 = Sophocles T 19, 20, 75), and he may also have served on embassies (Life of Sophocles 1 = Sophocles T 1.11). When over eighty, in the wake of the Athenian catastrophe in Sicily in 413, he was elected as one of the ten probouloi who were chosen to exercise a rather ill-defined supervisory function for an indefinite period (Arist. Rh. 1419a26-30 = Sophocles T 27).

There are, however, episodes in Sophocles’ public career that may raise doubts about his commitment to democracy. At the time of his generalship, there seems to have been some tension between him and his colleague, Pericles, the democratic leader par excellence. Ion of Chios (loc. cit.) reports that he attended a symposium at which Sophocles was a guest. Sophocles by a neat piece of trickery got himself a kiss from a handsome boy, and said to the company ‘I’m practising my generalship, since Pericles has said that I know how to be a poet but not how to be a general; that was a good stratagem of mine, wasn’t it?’ More seriously, as a proboulos in 411 he supported the board’s recommendation that the constitutional safeguards against illegal decrees should be suspended, thereby opening the way to the installation of the oligarchy of the Four Hundred.2 We are told that when taxed afterwards with this3 he agreed that it was a bad thing to have done but ‘there was nothing else that was less bad’. Strikingly, this episode does not appear to have affected Sophocles’ popularity among theatre audiences and contest judges:4 at the first City Dionysia after the restoration of full democracy, that of 409 – possibly the very occasion when the whole citizen body took the militantly pro-democratic Oath of Demophantus5 – he won first prize with the production of which Philoctetes was part.

As a dramatist, Sophocles frequently gives the impression that the rank and file of a community are helpless without strong and wise leadership; but he can also suggest that a leader is worth nothing if he neglects his people’s interests or ignores their opinions. This double dependence is well summed up by the chorus of Ajax (lll. 158-166), though in their situation it is natural that they put most of their emphasis on one of its two limbs:

Yet small men without great men
are unsafe guardians of a wall;
for little men are best supported by the great
and the great by smaller men.
But it is not possible to teach
judgment in such matters to fools.
Such are the men that clamour against you,
and we have not the strength to defend ourselves
against them without you, my lord.6

The ‘fools’ whom the chorus have particularly in mind are clearly those whom they suppose to have been slandering Ajax (they do not yet know that the rumours circulating about his outrageous behaviour are actually true), but we may soon be wondering whether it is rather Ajax himself who does not understand the double dependency. The chorus are totally reliant on him, and to emphasize this, Sophocles invariably describes them as sailors (ll. 201, 249-250, 349, 357-358, 902), except at l. 565 when he makes a bow to mythic fact by calling them ‘shield-bearing warriors’ as well as ‘people of the sea’. Soldiers carried arms; sailors did not, and we may be certain that the chorus had neither weapons nor armour; they are helpless without Ajax, or would have been had not Teucer arrived. The members of Ajax’s family are equally dependent on him: Tecmessa sees a grim future for herself and Eurysaces without his protection (ll. 485-524) and Teucer, though he bravely stands up to Menelaus and Agamemnon, sees no prospect of successfully resisting his enemies (ll. 1021-1023) and dreads – rightly, we know – the anger of Telamon when he returns home (ll. 1008-1020), and he will also have to witness the terrible grief of a mother who has lost her only son (cf. ll. 622-634).

Except perhaps at one moment, Ajax shows no awareness of the plight in which he is going to leave all these ‘friends’ (a term which he applies with emphasis to the sailors, ll. 249-250, as well as to his family): he thinks not at all of any duties towards them, but only of their duties towards him. He tells the sailors to kill him (l. 361), a request which they ignore as insane. He then in effect declares his intention of ending his own life, at the end of a 51-line speech (ll. 430-480) in which he makes no mention of any of those close to him except his father (ll. 434-440, 462-466, 470-472), and then only because he fears his father may think him an unworthy son in terms of martial achievement. Tecmessa’s heart-rending plea is simply ignored; Eurysaces is told that he must prove himself no unworthy son, that Teucer will take care of him (ll. 550-564) – though he has no intention of delaying his suicide until Teucer arrives (cf. ll. 565-570) – and that he must carry Ajax’s enormous shield (ll. 574-576).

And then, when we had not expected to see him again, Ajax comes out of his hut and says that he has been softened and ‘feel[s] pity at leaving [Tecmessa] a widow and [his] son an orphan near enemies’ (ll. 652-653). But whether this pity is genuine or only pretended, it has no effect except that Ajax decides not to kill himself in immediate proximity to his dependants, whom he again commits to the care of Teucer (ll. 688-689) ‘if he comes’ – and even then Teucer’s primary duty will be to take care of Ajax’s body. In his final speech (ll. 815-865) Tecmessa and Eurysaces are not mentioned at all, Teucer is to be instructed only to make sure that Ajax is buried (ll. 826-830), and the Sun is asked to give the news of his death to Telamon and Eriboea (in fact it will be Teucer who has that unenviable task). And Ajax falls on his sword, having done precisely nothing to ensure the welfare or even the safety of his sailors, his concubine, his son, his brother, his father or his mother.

Oedipus as king of Thebes, contrariwise, is utterly devoted to the interests of his people, though in this cruellest of tragedies it avails him nothing. When they petition him for aid in the crisis of the plague, he tells them that he has already taken action by sending Creon to Delphi (ot 58-72); when Creon reports that to end the plague they must rid Thebes of the killer of Laius by death or exile, he at once takes all possible steps to find the guilty man; and when the chorus suggest consulting Teiresias (ll. 284-286), Oedipus again says he has taken action already (ll. 287-289). When Teiresias arrives, Oedipus appeals to him for information in the name of the city (302-303, 312) with only brief mention of himself,7 speaking throughout in the first person plural.8 When Teiresias refuses to answer, Oedipus four times, in varying terms and tones, accuses him of ignoring the needs of the city.9

Things change drastically when Teiresias denounces Oedipus himself as the killer of Laius (ll. 350-353, 362) – an accusation which Oedipus can fairly say he knows to be false, since according to uncontradicted eyewitness evidence Laius was killed by a gang, not by an individual (ll. 122-123, cf. l. 292), and which he can only account for on the assumption that Creon is plotting to overthrow him and Teiresias is Creon’s tool (ll. 380-389, 399-402, 572-573). For some time his main concern is how to protect himself from this supposed plot; the plight of the city is forgotten, and ‘we’ gives place to ‘I’.10 But when the chorus plead on behalf of Creon on the ground that they are distressed by ‘the dying of the land’ and the prospect of further troubles being added to those it is already suffering (ll. 665-668) Oedipus, because he pities them (l. 671), at once sets Creon free even though he professes to believe that this will result in his own death or exile (ll. 669-670). Soon after this, when the past history of Oedipus becomes the play’s dominant concern, the plague drops out of mind; after 696 the plight of the city is never alluded to again.11

Antigone is the most political of Sophocles’ surviving plays. It has often been seen as presenting a conflict between the authority of the state (polis) and the claims of kinship; but it should not be forgotten that while Antigone certainly denies that the polis, or any human authority, has the right to forbid her to give funeral rites to her brother, she also denies Creon’s claim that in issuing that prohibition he is voicing the will of the polis. When he tells Antigone (Ant. 508) that she is alone among the Thebans in taking the view she does, she replies that the members of Creon’s council (the chorus of the play) take the same view but keep silent for fear of Creon. Indeed an issue that runs through much of Antigone is the question: who is entitled to say that he, she or they speak for Thebes?

The first time that Creon’s decree12 is mentioned, by Antigone (Ant. 8), she speaks of it as a ‘proclamation’ (κήρυγµα) made by ‘the general’ (τὸν στρατηγόν) – a term which, to the Athenian audience, denoted an elected and accountable public official who could issue orders to soldiers or sailors and, in emergency, to civilians too, but only within the limits set by the law. When she describes the content of the decree in detail (ll. 21-36) she attributes it to Creon by name (ll. 21, 31) and again speaks of it as having been ‘proclaimed’ (ἐκκεκηρῦχθαι, l. 27; κηρύξαντ’, l. 32; προκηρύξοντα, l. 34). For her it is definitely his act, not that of the community.

Antigone is determined to defy the decree. Ismene cannot bring herself to do something that is ἀπόρρητον πόλει (l. 44). This could mean ‘forbidden to the city’ (so most editors and translators) or ‘forbidden by the city’ (dative of agent; possibly ‘half-intended’ according to Griffith ad loc., and so understood, e.g., by Kitto and by Meineck & Woodruff).13 Both interpretations are supportable. On the one hand, Antigone has emphasized that the proclamation was addressed to the whole citizen body (πανδήµωι πόλει, l. 7; ἀστοῖσι, l. 27; cf. ll. 193, 203). On the other hand, we shall soon learn that Ismene regards the decree as having the authority of the whole city behind it (βίαι πολιτῶν, l. 79); and Euripides seems to have taken the phrase in this way (Ph. 1657: ἐγώ σφε θαψω, κἂν ἀπεννέπηι πόλις).14 And this latter interpretation also points up the paradoxical relationship between two successive utterances of Ismene’s in which ἀπόρρητον πόλει and Κρέοντος ἀντειρηκότος (l. 47) are treated as equivalent: this is not the only such dubious equivalence to which Ismene will give voice. For Ismene, a decree of Creon’s is a decree of the city.

This equivalence, or confusion, comes through just as strongly in Ismene’s next speech (ll. 49-68). She speaks of acting ‘in defiance of the law’ (νόµου βίαι, l. 59) and, in the next breath, of violating ‘the vote [sic] or power of autocrats’ (ψῆφον τυράννων ἢ κράτη). The implication of that juxtaposition is that every order issued by a ruler has the force of law and must be unconditionally obeyed. As we shall see later, this is in fact Creon’s position; but it is not one that would have the approval of a typical citizen of Athens or of any polis not subject to a τύραννος. The confusion continues in l. 79, where Ismene refuses to act βίαι πολιτῶν, though she has no evidence that the citizen body, or anyone except Creon, has had any hand at all in the making of the decree.

At the end of the parodos (ll. 155-6) the chorus introduce Creon as ‘the new king of the land’, and Creon himself likewise lays claim (l. 173) to monarchical power, or, as he puts it, ‘all powers and the throne’, not by popular election but by right of blood (l. 174).15 In what might be called his inaugural manifesto (ll. 175-190) – warmly approved a century later by Demosthenes (19.246-247) – he asserts that the first duty of the citizen, including the ruler (πᾶσαν εὐθύνων πόλιν, l. 178), is to the city (ll. 182, 187-90) or the citizen body (ἀστοῖς, l. 186) above all else. He sounds like a ruler in the mould of Oedipus. It is specifically in accordance with this principle (ἀδελφὰ τῶνδε, l. 192) that he has ordered a solemn, honorific funeral for Eteocles and forbidden any burial at all to Polyneices; like Antigone, he describes this decree as a proclamation made by himself (κηρύξας ἔχω, l. 192).

One might have expected the chorus, who have loyally served three generations of Theban kings (ll. 164-169) and who had sung in the parodos (ll. 110-123), just as Creon has now spoken (ll. 199-202), of how Polyneices had put Thebes in peril of fiery destruction and bloody massacre, would greet this proclamation with enthusiasm. They do nothing of the kind. They register the fact that Creon has power to do what he pleases (ll. 211-214), and that is all. When they think they are going to be asked to take part in enforcing the decree, they excuse themselves on grounds of age (ll. 215-216); when asked not to give countenance to violators (l. 219), they do not say that their habitual loyalty would forbid them to do so, only that they are not foolish enough to be in love with death (ll. 220). They could hardly make it clearer, without actually saying so, that they think the decree is wrong; and this is confirmed a little later (ll. 278-279) when, after hearing of the mysterious nocturnal sprinkling of dust over Polyneices’ body, they wonder aloud whether a divine hand may have been at work. Creon’s furious reaction to this suggestion (ll. 280-283) and his savage threats against the Guard and his colleagues (whom he accuses, on no evidence at all, of taking bribes from political malcontents) should they fail to fulfil the virtually impossible task16 of discovering the culprit (ll. 304-314), will be for the audience sufficient proof that it will be dangerous for anyone to disagree openly with Creon: long before Antigone claims that the elders really agree with her but are keeping silent through fear, we have been clearly shown that this is indeed the case.17 Creon may well be sincere in his claim to value the welfare of the city and its people above all other considerations; but he is to be the sole judge of what is in their interests, and everyone else, ‘in accordance with justice’ (δικαίως), must submit to his yoke (ll. 291-292). A public-spirited despot is still a despot.

Creon further displays his arbitrary temper, after the arrest of Antigone, by sentencing Ismene to death also for being beside herself with grief at the prospect of losing Antigone (ll. 488-496, cf. ll. 526-530) – though later (l. 771) he just as arbitrarily changes his mind. By then, in the confrontation between Creon and his son Haemon, the issue ‘who speaks for Thebes?’ has been fully and plainly laid out before us.

Nothing has been said about Haemon, or indeed about any living member of Creon’s oikos other than Creon himself, until Ismene brings it to Creon’s attention, and ours, that Antigone is betrothed to him (l. 568). We know that in the epic tradition (Oedipodeia fr. 3 West) Haemon was devoured by the Sphinx, long before Antigone was even born; we know of no other reference to him before the time of Sophocles,18 and it may be (though we cannot be sure) that it was Sophocles’ innovation that made him Creon’s youngest son (ll. 626-627) – whereas in the epic he had presumably been the eldest – and the fiancé of Antigone. When he arrives on the scene at l. 626, we will assume, as both the chorus and Creon do (ll. 627-630, 632-634), that he has come out of distress at being robbed of his intended marriage.19

Haemon at once disclaims any thought of disobeying his father (ll. 635-638), but Creon seems to think that this is mere throat-clearing in preparation for a plea that Antigone may be spared. At any rate, after strongly affirming the obligation of filial obedience (ll. 639-647), he tells Haemon to put out of his mind the idea of marrying so ‘evil’ a woman as Antigone is (ll. 648-654) – and then completely forgets that he is addressing his son (who is not referred to in any way in the last 26 lines of his speech) and speaks as ruler of Thebes: since Antigone has disobeyed his decree ‘alone of the whole city’, he will not make himself ‘false to the city’ but will put her to death, regardless of her kinship to him (ll. 655-660). And then it is his turn to confuse the city with its ruler (ll. 663-667):

But whoever oversteps the mark, either doing violence to the laws or thinking to give orders to those in power, that man cannot receive my commendation. He whom the city appoints must be obeyed, in matters small and great, just and otherwise.

As Siewert pointed out in 1977,20 the language of this passage is designed to be reminiscent of the Athenian citizen’s oath of allegiance, taken on coming of age and known from a fourth-century inscription (Rhodes & Osborne 88), in which he promised, inter alia:

I will obey those who for the time being exercise authority reasonably (ἐµφρόνως), and the established laws, and those which they establish reasonably in the future.

But how different! The Athenian citizen swore unconditional obedience only to ‘the established laws’; new enactments, or the orders of office-holders, required his compliance only if they were ‘reasonable’. For Creon, on the other hand, defiance of ‘the laws’ and defiance of ‘those in power’ are equally reprehensible, and ‘he whom the city appoints’21 must be obeyed even when his commands are unjust. Creon, that is, is claiming the right to issue any command he chooses, with the force of law, and to impose any penalty including death on anyone who disobeys. His thinking is the thinking, his language the language, of a tyrant. The opposite of obedience, for him, is anarchy (l. 672), and anarchy is the worst of all evils – though it is apparently worse still if the disobedient subject is a woman (ll. 678-680).

Haemon, in reply, again begins with a disclaimer: he neither wishes nor is able to deny the correctness of what Creon has said (ll. 685-686). He then proceeds to do precisely that. The people are afraid of Creon, and take care that any critical thoughts or words of theirs do not come to his ears (ll. 688-691). But Haemon has been able to listen to what they are saying quietly to each other (ll. 693-700):

The city is grieving for this girl, saying that she deserves least of all women to suffer a wretched death on account of the noblest of deeds: when her own brother had fallen amid the slaughter, she did not leave him to be savaged by dogs eating his raw flesh or by some bird. ‘Is she not worthy to receive a golden honour?’22 Such is the talk that is quietly spreading in the shadows.

Antigone had claimed that the councillors were on her side but were afraid to say so. She was right.23 Now – if we can believe Haemon – we learn that the same is true of the common people of Thebes. It is Creon, if anyone, who is isolated ‘alone of the whole city’.

Haemon next spends twenty-three lines (ll. 701-723) begging his father to show flexibility, not for Antigone’s sake but for his own: his images of the tree that breaks in a flood because it will not bend (ll. 712-714) and the captain who capsizes his ship because he refuses to slacken sail (ll. 715-717) hint at the possibility that if Creon continues unyielding he may be overthrown.

Creon does continue unyielding, repeating that Antigone is a criminal who must be shown no indulgence (ll. 730, 732). Haemon retorts that that is not what the Theban people say (l. 733). It might of course be argued that this is an ‘unsubstantiated assertion’24 influenced by Haemon’s very strong emotional commitment to Antigone.25 But if Sophocles had meant us to question the veracity of his report, he would surely have made Creon do so. Instead he makes Creon say: ‘Is the city going to tell me what orders I must give?’ (l. 734).

By that rhetorical question he openly takes the position of a tyrant, and this is confirmed by his next two utterances:

Am I supposed to rule this land for another or for myself? (l. 736)

Is not the city considered to belong to its ruler? (l. 738)

Creon claims to be the owner of the city; to have the right to rule it in his own sole interest;26 and to issue orders to it without any consideration of anyone else’s views. It is by these claims, not by any allegation that Haemon has misrepresented public opinion, that he justifies his disregard of Haemon’s arguments. This is too much for Haemon, who says that Creon is talking like a teenager (l. 735) and that a polis belonging to one man is no real polis (l. 737), and gibes that Creon would make a fine king for a desert island (l. 739). He still claims to be advising Creon for Creon’s own good (ll. 741, 749), but their quarrel is now irreconcilable. And from the point of view of any Athenian – even of one who thinks that Polyneices deserved the treatment that Creon decreed for him – Creon has put himself unequivocally in the wrong.

Creon now specifies the punishment of Antigone. In his original decree, the penalty for disobedience was to have been public stoning (l. 36). At the height of his quarrel with Haemon, he orders Antigone to be brought out so that she can be put to death in Haemon’s sight (ll. 760-761) – presumably by the sword – and for a moment there is a prospect of something which is of course impossible in Athenian tragedy, an on-stage execution,27 until Haemon forestalls it by abruptly departing. Then (ll. 773-780) Creon ordains the manner of Antigone’s death, immurement in a cave with ‘just enough food to escape pollution’. In neither case will there be any public participation: ‘we are at liberty to reflect … that the people would refuse to stone one whom they thought worthy of a crown’.28 Antigone is to be put to death not by the city, but by Creon or his agents.

We were expecting a lover’s plea for the life of his beloved. We have instead been given a political debate, in which Creon has been exposed as a tyrant and it has become clear that if the polis, that is the citizen body, had had the decisive voice, Antigone would not have been punished but rewarded. Presently, but too late, Teiresias will come to tell Creon that the opinion of the Theban people is also the opinion of the gods; and Creon, yielding at last, will again, in the last words he speaks before disaster falls on him, echo the Athenian civic oath: ‘I fear it may be best to keep the established laws to the end of one’s life.’ (ll. 1113-1114).

From the point of view of attitudes to democracy, the most significant thing about the political side of Antigone is the prominence given to the opinions of the common people. Except for the Guard (ll. 223-331, 384-440) we do not see them onstage, only the elite as represented by the chorus. But it is Haemon’s report of the opinions and talk of the demos (cf. 690: ἀνδρὶ δηµότηι) that ignite the fiery quarrel between him and his father; and Creon himself at l. 734 implicitly equates them with the polis. Sophocles need not have done this; he could easily have put in the mouth of the chorus sentiments similar to those attributed by Haemon to the people, simply by removing Creon from the scene during one of the choral odes. He chose not to do so; he chose to let us know what the ordinary man thinks, and what Creon thinks of the ordinary man. In this play, then, the view we are expected to endorse is that every citizen, of whatever status, is entitled to hold and express opinions on political issues, and to have them taken into consideration on their merits.

In Philoctetes and in Oedipus at Colonus the chorus consists of humble men who rely heavily on their superiors (Neoptolemus and Theseus, respectively), but no conflict arises between the leaders’ responsibility to their followers or subjects and any other interest or concern. In Oedipus at Colonus some things are said which might have significant implications for the relationships between the Theban people and their leading personages (Eteocles, Polyneices and Creon). For example, Creon claims (oc 737-741) that he has been sent to fetch Oedipus by the will of ‘all the citizens … the whole Cadmean people’, but both Oedipus and Theseus implicitly reject this assertion and treat Creon as representing only himself, Oedipus pointedly using the second person singular throughout a long speech (ll. 761-799) and Theseus saying that Thebes was not responsible for Creon’s outrageous behaviour (ll. 919-931). We are not, however, given enough information to enable us to judge between these conflicting assertions, and it is very doubtful whether the dramatist has troubled to imagine a clear and coherent scenario of political events and opinions at Thebes after Oedipus’ fall from power. Before the Creon scene we had been told (by Ismene, newly arrived from Thebes) that Oedipus’ sons had at first left the throne to Creon but that Eteocles now occupies it (ll. 365-376); after it, we are told much the same thing by Polyneices, with the additional detail that Eteocles had ‘persuaded the city’ to make him king rather than his elder brother (ll. 1295-1298). No attempt is made to reconcile this history with the mission of Creon, who at no time makes any mention of Eteocles or Polyneices. To the extent that the politics of Thebes matter in oc, they matter not for their own sake but because of their impact on Oedipus, on Antigone and Ismene, and on Athens.

There are two possibly relevant passages in the fragments, but we are hampered by not knowing their context. One is fr. 683 (from Phaedra), a denunciation of demagogues who gain power by deceiving the people (probably related to an accusation by Phaedra that Hippolytus had been plotting to usurp the kingship which, after Theseus’ presumed death, should have passed to one of his legitimate sons),29 reminiscent of Euripidean passages such as Supp. 412-416 and Or. 902-915.30 Such a denunciation may arise from an anti-democratic attitude (as it certainly does on the lips of the Theban herald in Suppliants), but there is nothing inherently anti-democratic about it: in democratic Athens, deceiving the people could be a legal crime punishable by death (D. 20.100, 135). In any case, the denunciation made here is either a lie (if the speaker is Phaedra) or the result of believing a lie (if the speaker is Theseus).

The other passage that may be relevant is fr. 201b (cited from Eriphyle, which was probably the same play as Epigonoi),31 where the speaker argues that denying freedom of speech leads to wrong and disastrous decisions. I have elsewhere suggested32 that the speaker is Eriphyle’s son Alcmeon, and that he is appealing for a fair hearing before arguing an unpopular case against the projected Argive attack on Thebes. But he is dissembling: he is opposing the war, not because he actually thinks it wrong, but because he has received long ago from his father the prophet Amphiaraus (and probably also more recently from an oracle) an injunction that he should first take revenge on his mother for bringing about his father’s death (which Amphiaraus had foreseen) in an earlier Theban war. The Athenian theatre audience, while approving of Alcmeon’s sentiment in the abstract, will have been well aware of its insincerity.

From the extant plays, however, three propositions stand out un-contradicted:

  1. The welfare of the common people is often dependent on wise and effective leadership (Aj., ot, Ph., oc).
  2. A person in a position of leadership is blameworthy if he ignores the needs and interests of his people (Aj., ot).
  3. He is also blameworthy if he ignores their settled opinions and preferences (Ant.). This does not mean that he must necessarily follow their every whim, but he must not simply brush their views aside; rather, presumably, he must seek to persuade them that they are wrong and he is right – which Creon can hardly be said to make any attempt to do.

Propositions 1 and 2 are compatible with democracy, but also with other political systems in which the ruler or ruling group governs in the interest of the whole community and not narrowly in their own (cf. Arist. Pol. 1279a16-b10). Proposition 3, on the other hand, is democratic in a sense that Sophocles’ one-time colleague in office, Pericles, would have fully recognized. This does not prove that Sophocles the Athenian citizen was a committed democrat. What it does prove is that in the only play in which we can identify an attitude towards different forms of government, Sophocles the dramatist, in (probably) the late 440s bc, chose to stress the importance of grassroots public opinion; more than that, by having Teiresias agree with the popular view that Creon’s decree was wrong, he created a situation in which vox populi was confirmed by vox dei.


The hellenotamiai appear to have been chosen by vote, not by lot: R. Meiggs, The Athenian Empire (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p. 234.


Arist. loc. cit., cf. Th. 8.67.2 (who does not explicitly mention the probouloi), Lys. 12.65 [Arist.] Ath. 29.2-4.


Hardly by Peisander, one of the leaders of the Four Hundred (as Arist. loc. cit.), who on the fall of the oligarchy had fled to the protection of the Spartan garrison at Decelea (Th. 8.98.1), and was condemned to death in his absence (Lyc. Leocr. 120-1).


In socioeconomic standing and political opinion neither the judges, nor the section of the audience whose reactions would be most apparent to them, are likely to have been a representative cross-section of the population; see A. H. Sommerstein, ‘The Theatre Audience, the Demos, and the Suppliants of Aeschylus’, in C. B. R. Pelling (ed.), Greek Tragedy and the Historian (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 63-79 (reprinted with updates in A. H. Sommerstein, The Tangled Ways of Zeus and Other Studies in and around Greek Tragedy [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010], pp. 118-142), and A. H. Sommerstein, ‘How “Popular” was Athenian Comedy?’, to appear in Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, n.s. 116 (2017), pp. 11-26.


And. 1.98 πρὸ Διονυσίων: see J. L. Shear, ‘The Oath of Demophantos and the Politics of Athenian Identity’, in A. H. Sommerstein and J. Fletcher (eds.), Horkos: The Oath in Greek Society (Exeter: Bristol Phoenix Press, 2007), pp. 148-160, pp. 153-158. The oath committed every Athenian to put to death, ‘by word and by deed and by vote and by my own hand, if I am able’, anyone attempting to overthrow the democracy or holding any office in an anti-democratic regime. Against the contention of M. Canevaro and E. M. Harris, ‘The Documents in Andocides’ On the Mysteries’, Classical Quarterly, 62 (2012), pp. 98-129, that the decree in our text of Andocides, incorporating the oath, is spurious, see A. H. Sommerstein, ‘The Authenticity of the Demophantus Decree’, Classical Quarterly, 64 (2014), pp. 49-57, and M. H. Hansen, ‘Is Patrokleides’ Decree (Andoc. 1.77-79) a Genuine Document?’, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, 55 (2015), pp. 884-901, esp. pp. 898-901.


Translated by H. Lloyd-Jones, Sophocles: Antigone, The Women of Trachis, Philoctetes, Oedipus at Colonus (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 1994).


ῥῦσαι δ’ ἐµέ (l. 312) – which Sophocles seems to have made Oedipus say mainly for the sake of the irony: Teiresias knows, and the theatre audience know, that he can save the city only by ruining Oedipus.


ἐξευρίσκοµεν (l. 304), πέµψασιν ἡµῖν (306), κτείναιµεν … ἐκπεµψαίµεθα (l. 309), ἐσµέν (l. 314).


οὔτ’ ἔννοµ’ εἶπας οὔτε προσφιλῆ πόλει (l. 322), πάντες σε προσκυνοῦµεν οἵδ’ ἱκτήριοι (l. 327), ἐννοεῖς … καταφθεῖραι πόλιν (ll. 330-331), τήνδ’ ἀτιµάζεις πόλιν (ll. 340).


Between Teiresias’ denunciation (ll. 350-353) and Creon’s departure after being sullenly reprieved by Oedipus (l. 677), Oedipus (who speaks 96 or 97 lines between these points) uses the first person singular (pronoun or verb) thirty-one times, the first person plural not once.


So completely is it forgotten that when Creon insists on consulting Delphi again before sending Oedipus into exile (ll. 1436-1443, 1517-1518) it does not occur to Oedipus, or to the chorus, or to any reasonable critic to protest ‘Must Thebans go on dying like flies while you waste time sending to ask Apollo a question that he has already answered?’


This term should be treated as ambiguous between the sense in which it is used by ancient historians in relation to non-monarchical states (an enactment by a deliberative body such as the Athenian boule or ekklesia, or the Roman senate, constitutionally valid but not having passed through the full procedure for formal legislation) and the sense in which it is used by writers on modern history and politics (an enactment made by an organ or member of a state’s executive without having been approved by its parliament or other deliberative body). Creon’s decree is in fact of the second type, being made on his sole authority, but he treats it as though it were of the first type, even calling it a ‘law’ (νόµος: Ant. 449, 481).


M. Griffith, Sophocles: Antigone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); H. D. F. Kitto, Sophocles: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Electra (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962); P. C. Meineck and P. Woodruff, Sophocles: Theban Plays (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003).


Antigone’s next line (Ph. 1659 ἀλλ’ εὐκλεές τοι δύο φίλω κεῖσθαι πέλας) also echoes a line of hers from the present Sophoclean scene (Ant. 73). The authenticity of this part of Phoenissae has often been challenged (J. Diggle, Euripidis Fabulae: Tomus III (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994) and P. D. Kovacs, Euripides: Helen, Phoenician Women, Orestes (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 2002) both bracket the whole of 1582-end, while not ruling out the possibility that some passages are genuine) but is accepted by most recent commentators (see, e.g., E. M. Craik, Euripides: Phoenician Women (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1988), pp. 245-249; D. J. Mastronarde, Euripides: Phoenissae (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 591-594; C. Amiech, Les Phéniciennes d’Euripide (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004), pp. 567 ff.); in any case, even if the scene is not by Euripides, it can hardly be later than the 4th century bc.


Some may doubt the validity of this claim, since Creon was not a member of the royal οἶκος, not being descended from Laius or from any of his paternal ancestors. In terms of Athenian inheritance law, however – of which the audience would be reminded by the phrase κατ’ ἀγχίστειαν – relatives on the mother’s side were entitled to inherit if there were no close relatives on the father’s side (D. 43.51, cf. Is. 11.11-12); in the inheritance of property at Athens maternal half-siblings (like Antigone and Ismene) would have priority over maternal uncles (like Creon), but nobody would be likely to see a young woman as a serious candidate to inherit royal power.


Virtually impossible, that is, unless the culprit is foolish or suicidal enough to return to the site in daylight – as Antigone does.


Normally a tragic chorus would have the opportunity to speak its mind during the stasima, when the stage was empty of actors; but once Antigone is identified as the violator of the decree they never get this opportunity, for Creon, most unusually, remains on stage through three stasima (ll. 582-625, 781-800, 944-987) and the kommos that follows one of them (ll. 806-882).


Unless we detect such a reference in the story told in Il. 4.391-398 about a fifty-man ambush set by the Thebans for Tydeus, one of whose two leaders was ‘Maeon, son of Haemon’ who was spared by Tydeus when he killed the other forty-nine. Haemon is a stock name in the Iliad (see G. S. Kirk, The Iliad: A Commentary. Volume I: Books i-4 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985], p. 371), but the story could be reconciled with the Oedipodeia if it were assumed that Haemon had had a son before the Sphinx came to Thebes.


All the more so, perhaps, since the marriage must have been arranged by Creon himself, he being both Haemon’s father and Antigone’s guardian.


P. Siewert, ‘The Ephebic Oath in Fifth-Century Athens’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 97 (1977), pp. 102-111.


Creon ignores the fact that (as he made clear himself in ll. 173-174) he bases his claim to power not on appointment by any body representing the city, but on his being the closest living male relative of Eteocles and Polyneices.


Athenians would probably think of a crown. This sentence, unlike the previous one, is presented as a direct quotation of the words that are being spoken by the man in the Theban street.


It is true that in her last major speech (l. 907) she speaks of having acted ‘in defiance of the citizens’ (the same phrase that Ismene had used at l. 79) – if indeed the passage 904-20 is genuine, about which, for reasons set out by A. L. Brown, Sophocles: Antigone (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1987), pp. 199-200, I continue to have grave doubts. But this comes after the chorus have censured her actions (ll. 853-856, 873-875) more strongly than at any other time (though even now admitting that she showed ‘a kind of piety,’ l. 872), in a manner that might well make her doubt her previous judgement of them, even though they are still constrained by the presence of Creon.


C. Sourvinou-Inwood, ‘Assumptions and the Creation of Meaning: Reading Sophocles’ Antigone’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 109 (1989), pp. 134-148, p. 146.


Of whom he actually makes no mention between l. 699 and l. 751.


And this is the man who condemned those who gave their friends priority over their country (ll. 182-183) – a condemnation which should have applied a fortiori to one who ranked himself higher than his polis.


Compare Aesch. Ag. 1650-1656, where it seems as though the Argive elders (the chorus) are about to be massacred until Clytaemestra intervenes to restrain Aegisthus.


H. D. F. Kitto, Form and Meaning in Drama (London: Methuen, 1956), p. 166.


See T. H. Talboy and A. H. Sommerstein, ‘Phaedra’, in A. H. Sommerstein et al., Sophocles: Selected Fragmentary Plays I (Oxford: Aris & Phillips, 2006), pp. 248-317, pp. 280-282, 311-313.


Or however much of that passage is genuine.


See A. H. Sommerstein, ‘The Epigoni or Eriphyle’, in A. H. Sommerstein and T. H. Talboy, Sophocles: Selected Fragmentary Plays II (Oxford: Aris & Phillips. 2012), pp. 25-74, pp. 34-38.


Sommerstein, ‘The Epigoni or Eriphyle’, pp. 44-46, 64.

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